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Blinded By Fear: It's Time We Saw The Light On Nuclear Power In India

09/03/2016 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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CHOWKIPUR, INDIA, - SEPTEMBER 18: Boys study by lantern light in a house L-R: (children closest to camera) Nitish Suraj (12), Ashish Choudhary (10), Baijunath Paswan (7) in Chowkipur India on September 18, 2015. Chowkipur is a village 60 KM from Patna that has no electricity. (Photo by Simon de Trey-White for the Washington Post)

At the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue (India's own version of the famous Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore) in New Delhi, a discussion on energy security for India was one of the longest sessions that took place. This was noteworthy because even though energy security has been one of the country's biggest national interest topics for years, it has got little traction in both public and political discourse. This is now changing at a rapid pace.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to attend the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C., some of the most corrupt aspects of nuclear use such as proliferation, black markets in nuclear fuels such as uranium, and weaponization will be discussed. This is the clutter that nuclear power, one of the cleanest and most efficient ways of producing mass energy, must shine through.

[T]he castigation of nuclear power has deeper roots in a quagmire of economics, politics and the baggage that nuclear technologies carry themselves.

At the Raisina Dialogue, Piyush Goyal, India's Union Minister for Power, Coal and Renewable Energy, offered a much-needed candid perspective on where Modi's government stands on nuclear energy.

"We are very keen to expand (nuclear power). There are of course concerns about safety and lifecycle costs of nuclear power (about) which we are still in dialogue with the developed world. Nuclear (power) provides us with a clean base load that we are very conscious of. Energy efficiency is important for India but energy security comes first, let's all be very clear about it."

Goyal later made an important point that adds greater perspective on why nuclear energy is valuable as a major contributor--in a similar capacity as coal--to India's base load power generation. Coal, today, provides India with nearly 70% of its entire power capacity. India is now close to self-sufficiency in coal production, and that means domestically securing much of its energy security. India relies heavily on foreign suppliers for oil and natural gas, and coal reaching a similar fate could be seen as catastrophic. Reliance on foreign suppliers for such critical means leaves a state with very little leverage in the global theatre of politics, and leaves a state and its people dangerously susceptible to foreign factors.

When you say 'nuclear' people don't think of energy generation but of the deadly mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that India has more than 240 million people without electricity supply and who live below the 'energy poverty line.' The challenge to fix this is daunting. However, today there is a spring in the heels of governance in New Delhi to move forward on energy security at a steady pace. Yet, for this to be successful we will need to address what is one of the most uncomfortable topics in this sphere: nuclear power.

fukushima

Ever since 2011's Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan, the very idea of nuclear power world over has come under significant stress. While Fukushima alone is not fully responsible for this, it amplified all the base concerns against nuclear energy that had been simmering for decades.

But the castigation of nuclear power has deeper roots in a quagmire of economics, politics and the baggage that nuclear technologies carry themselves. Nonetheless, much of the fear-mongering has at its core the fact that the fuel which powers nuclear energy so efficiently has been historically used as one of the world's most potent weapons of mass destruction. When you say 'nuclear' people don't think of energy generation but of the deadly mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb.

[T]he focus of the larger public discourse on the shunning of nuclear power in India has shifted from safety issues to the end price of the energy...

During the Raisina Dialogue, perhaps out of character for an Indian conference, nuclear power got the backing of delegates and experts, including those who had worked with the Vienna headquartered International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). An interesting point presented was that the focus of the larger public discourse on the shunning of nuclear power in India has shifted from safety issues (an area where India holds a good track record) to the end price of the energy that nuclear projects produce.

The Fukushima disaster, as well as the ensuing negative discourse on nuclear power plants, has significantly altered the nuclear power sector. While the number of nuclear power plants around the world is only set to increase, there has been a marked plummeting of enthusiasm.

There is no question that Fukushima was a wake-up call for the world and the nuclear power industry. Japan, which had long championed nuclear energy (albeit more due to necessity), found itself in a situation where public opinion made the country rapidly step away from it. However, as many have since rightly pointed out, the Fukushima disaster is also a story of successful containment. The fact that the plant did not collapse into complete 'fallout' is testimony to how far technology has come. It also showcased how regulation and safety measures in this sector barely have any margins for error. In the post-Fukushima era, Japan went through a stringent review of its nuclear norms, and discovered some alarming flaws. These reviews today provide countries like India practical assessments on how to make the nuclear sector fail-proof for the future.

Coal is much more fatal than nuclear power which has seen only two major disasters since 1959.

However, public discourse also needs to be revisited. While globally, anti-nuclear lobbies are extremely strong, well-funded and indeed important in order to keep checks on the industry, fear-mongering on nuclear power has become a cottage industry in itself.

This does more harm than good and obscures the true picture.

india coal

According to a study by Urban Emissions, exposure to coal-related pollution caused between 80,000 and 150,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma attacks in India in 2011-12, with associated costs of $3.3 to $4.6 billion. Another study presented by the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) has highlighted data that suggests air pollution caused 5.5 million premature deaths in 2013 globally, with more than half of those coming from India and China. India is planning to set up nearly 500 new coal-powered plants by 2020; up to 68-70% of its power production will still come from coal. The point I am trying to make is that coal is much more fatal than nuclear power which has seen only two major disasters since 1959 (Chernobyl and Fukushima). Thermal power costs India more in terms of both 'expense' and 'danger' than nuclear by a monumental margin.

India does not need to bank exclusively on nuclear power. However, its energy security will depend on a diverse basket, and not just one type of energy production. Today, an Indian will perhaps not have a problem with nuclear weapons placed in his or her backyard in the name of national security, but will have reservations over a nuclear plant that could help millions. India needs everything from miniature solar grids to nuclear power plants for its energy needs, considering nearly 300 million people, or close to the same size as the population of the US, still live in darkness.

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